Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC)
Published: 29th November 2017
What made you choose a career in HR?
I never set out to have a job in HR. I started out in economic development working with businesses and giving them grants to take people on and I got really interested in the human side of business. I asked the Local Authority I was working for if they would fund me to complete my CIPD, which they did (this was in the 80’s by the way, so a long time ago) and after a couple of years I went off and got a job in HR. Someone I worked with was running an HR consultancy and asked me to join them as an HR consultant, which I did. I then ended up taking the business over when I was 29, becoming MD, and then spent the next 12-14 years advising companies on their HR strategies. We had clients such as Unilever, Orange, Tui and First Choice, so I spent a lot of time working with HR Directors around their talent and people strategy. I was then headhunted into Royal Mail, so from 2003-2008 I was the HR Director of the letter’s business which was a £6.5 billion business with over 120,000 people when I started, and when I left it was 160,000. That was a great job, we were turning around a large organisation. For the last nine years I have been running the professional body for recruitment, called the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, and that’s a hybrid role really, so I’m in the people space, but I’m running a business – I do a lot of work in terms of lobbying, campaigning, talking to government, talking to the media and a lot of work with academics looking at the jobs market. For me, it’s a great job because of its variety, but I spend a lot of my time talking to HR people discussing the jobs market and some of the creative ways in which they can start to bring talent into their organisation.
What made you move in to that environment, as obviously that’s very different to a generalist HR role?
I like being an HR Director, but having run my own business and been an entrepreneur, I also like being a leader, and I think I like being a leader more than I like being an HR person. So an opportunity to work in a people space, however to run an organisation, and to create a vision and clarity about not just what we’re trying to do within the organisation but in the industry, was a job that was really too good to turn down. I really like working on a big stage, I like talking about the big issues and so to be able to spend time talking about a whole industry, and let’s not forget the recruitment industry is a £35.1 billion industry (bigger than fashion, electronics, toys). To be able to represent the industry, both within the UK and internationally, was an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down.
What do you think are the key challenges facing organisations looking to hire at the moment?
We’ve got labour, skill and talent shortages in the UK, and they are very distinct and they are different, and we’ve got all three playing out. For me, HR is about two fundamental things, you can talk about organisational design and reward, and there is a whole myriad of things we need to think about in how you incentivise people, but there are two fundamentals which are ‘hire the right people’ and ‘find the right line managers’. If you get these two things right, your business will be going in the right direction. I think the whole thing about hiring and getting the right people into your organisation is critical and I think that too many organisations see hiring as a transactional activity, they don’t think about it seriously enough. I think in an era of shortage, people have choice, they choose where they want to work. So, attracting the right people and really considering how do you have a great hiring experience and how do you ensure a great candidate experience, is really important – most organisations are not very good at it, so that’s the big challenge.
Do you think most businesses are good at the hiring process?
No, I think if you look at the data, one of the things that frustrates me the most is that we know interviews aren’t a great predictor of peoples’ performance in jobs. And if you look at how most organisations make decisions around hiring, they’ll tell you they had an interview with someone and they were offered the job. So for me I think there’s some data and evidence which HR and employers need to think about, which is how do I get a selection process which really tests the candidates and tests their potential in role. This means assessment centre activity, but also getting different people involved in the process which allows for more of a lens on an individual and a more holistic view. It will counter any unconscious bias, and that’s something that employers need to get better at when you’re making these big decisions about taking someone on, particularly in management, leadership or senior HR roles.
So you think talent should be top of any HR professionals’ agenda?
Yes, I think it should be. As I said, the sort of things I would focus on as an HR leader would be finding the right people in the first place, and secondly making sure I’ve got great line managers, so how do you engage people, how do you motivate them, how do you inspire them, it’s all about making sure you have people who are good coaches in line management positions. I think that businesses often hire for skill rather than attitude and energy, and if you think about a great line manager it’s someone who is empathetic, that can build relationships, that can give feedback and can identify what great performance looks like and hold people to account and do it in an encouraging and supportive way. That’s hugely important. If I look at any great organisation (I’ve had the pleasure of working with lots of different employers over the years) the ones who get it right are the ones who have great managers, particularly at the front of organisations. The people that are front line staff dealing with customers and clients, the people who manage the front line staff are the most critical component in any organisation, and if you get that right and you hire in the right way, you get the right attitude, you get the right energy and you get an organisation that flies. That’s what I would always say, it’s about hiring the right people, particularly in managerial jobs, and also making sure that you are clear about what you are trying to achieve. The problem you have, in many organisations, there is a lack of clarity about purpose, and I think HR has an important role in terms of providing clarity around why the organisation is there and what it’s trying to do, and engage people in that. People spend a lot of time at work, and they come to work to earn a living and support their family, but the more you can tap into their emotions, and the more you can make people excited about what they’re doing or that they’re going to make a difference to the world, the more energy they’ll give you, the more discretionary effort, the greater performance you’ll get. So I think there’s a big piece for HR to play a really active role in internal communications and describing the mission, vision and purpose of an organisation.
You’ve touched on what makes an outstanding HR professional and what’s important, do you think there’s anything else they need?
When I was at Royal Mail, I hired a lot of experts in Psychology, Talent, OD, but also Business Partners. The ones that are brilliant are the ones that are business-led. So, they get what’s going on within the organisation, they talk the language of the organisation, they’ve got great relationships with and solve problems for their line mangers. It’s a real partnership, it’s not about what great tools you have and how great HR is and asking people to fill in forms and hold appraisals, it’s about understanding the business first, and then applying great HR practice. But if you don’t get the business part right, the rest of it becomes cost, bureaucracy and doesn’t add any value.
From your point of view, do you think the role of an HR professional is sector specific or not? Is it just about getting the right person in?
HR has to be applied to each organisation and market, so being an HR professional in pharmaceuticals is very different to being an HR Director in the public sector, in an SME, or in a professional services firm, because they have different drivers around performance. Generic best practice doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t make enough of a difference. So for me, great HR people have the ability to work in different sectors but they realise that what they do, what they focus on and what the key drivers are will be different depending on their sector and the type of organisation, and also, where it is in its growth process.
What do you think the future holds for the UK’s labour market and HR professionals?
There are huge changes coming. If I talked about A.I. and algorithms and robotics, the truth is those people on the pessimistic side would say we could well end up with mass unemployment in the next ten to fifteen years, with jobs in the middle being hollowed out of our labour market and people struggling to get work. But leveraging technology is something that will become hugely important in the next ten to fifteen years – how we get humans to work with algorithms and A.I. will become much more of a key requirement. One of the things I think will happen is that the HR profession needs to either step-up and prove itself, or I think other disciplines will eventually take our lunch. If you look in large organisations, the Chief Information Officer is often talking a lot about how we align people to processes and ways of working, internal communications are talking about employer brand and culture, how do we create something that differentiates us in the marketplace. You can see lots of different disciplines, and I think the problem with HR is that it needs to be really self-confident and able to demonstrate the value it creates for an organisation, and the more it does that the more successful it will be. We’re at a tipping point, we either step up and demonstrate that we have a lot of strategic value, which would be great, or I think other people will start doing HR activity and call it something different, ‘Culture’ or ‘Organisational Design’ or ‘Customer Service Interface’, so I think there’s a huge opportunity within the next 10-15 years. My son is 22 years old and I would have probably said to him for a long time, stay away from HR, but I’d say to him now, this may well be the time to be going in to HR, particularly if you can understand business.